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Helen Gott was just a month from graduation. Across the candlelit table from her at the Tippin’ Inn in Syracuse, N.Y., was her steady boyfriend, Ernie Davis, a recent college graduate himself. It was a familiar scene for the couple, who had first met at the restaurant two years earlier.
Promise you’ll come to my graduation, Gott teased. I promise, replied Davis, who was more subdued than usual because of the treatments he was receiving for a recurrence of leukemia.
Curiously, Davis ordered chicken livers for dinner. My doctor said they’re good for my blood, he sheepishly explained to Gott.
“He’d never ordered chicken livers before,” Gott recalled. “I knew the chicken livers were not going to help. … I knew how sick he was.”<1>
The two struggled awkwardly through what would be their last dinner together. Two weeks later, Davis - the first black player to win college football’s Heisman Trophy - was dead. He was 23 years old.
****Life was never easy for Ernie Davis. His parents split up shortly after he was born in New Salem, Pa., and his father died in an accident before his first birthday. Davis was raised under austere conditions by his maternal grandparents in Uniontown, Pa., a coal-mining town 50 miles south of Pittsburgh.
Sports were a big part of Davis’ early life and helped him cope with a severe stuttering problem. St. Louis Cardinals star Stan Musial was from nearby Donora, Pa., and NFL quarterback Johnny Lujack was from Connellsville. Two childhood friends from Uniontown — Sandy Stephens and Bill Munsey — went on to football stardom at the University of Minnesota.
Baseball was Davis’ best sport as a youngster. As an 8-year-old he earned a spot on a midget baseball team, competing with boys three and four years older.
At age 11 he was reunited with his mother, who had remarried and was living in Elmira, N.Y. Young Davis excelled in baseball, basketball and football in elementary school. As a high schooler at Elmira Free Academy, he was a prep All-American in basketball and football.
In basketball, Davis was a starter as a high school freshman, when he stood six foot tall and weighed 175 pounds. He led the Academy to 52 straight wins in his final two years, averaging 18 points a game. His basketball skills led to many college scholarship offers but his true love was football, where he started at end before moving to halfback. After averaging 7.4 yards a carry throughout his varsity career, more than 30 colleges offered Davis football scholarships, including many predominately white schools, a rarity for a black athlete in the 1950s.
While Davis was flattered to be recruited by national powerhouses like UCLA and Notre Dame, they didn’t have a chance. His idol, Jim Brown, had played just 90 miles down the road, at Syracuse University, which led to a professional career with the Cleveland Browns of the National Football League. Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder was a regular visitor to Elmira in his efforts to entice Davis to join the Orangemen, but it was the addition of Brown to the recruiting process that sealed the deal.
Brown’s path to football stardom was eerily similar to Davis'.
He spent the first eight years of his life with his grandmother in Georgia before rejoining his mother in Long Island, N.Y. In high school, he averaged 38 points a game one basketball season (setting a Long Island season scoring record later broken by Carl Yastrzemski before his Hall of Fame baseball career with the Boston Red Sox).
When Brown first arrived at Syracuse, the school was in the early years of racially integrating its athletic programs and Schwartzwalder had just gone through his first racial scandal. “Don’t be another Avatus Stone,” Brown was warned, referring to a black Syracuse football recruit whose apparent “crime” was dating a blonde majorette.
Things had improved some by the time Davis was being recruited, but Brown still had words of caution for him.
"I told him it wouldn't be a cakewalk, because we're still breaking down barriers,” Brown said. “I don't think he was getting that message from too many schools (that were recruiting him), because there wasn't a whole bunch of us at any one place to tell him the truth.”<2>
When Davis arrived on campus, he was given the same No. 44 that Brown had wore. (Davis carried the legacy forward, helping recruit the next No. 44, Floyd Little, near the end of his career). NCAA rules kept freshmen from playing varsity sports in 1958, but Davis stood out in practices and led the freshman team to an unbeaten season.
It was in his sophomore season that Davis earned the nickname “the Elmira Express” at halfback and defensive back in those single platoon days. Davis averaged seven yards a carry and scored 10 touchdowns while earning All-America honors that season, forcing his roommate to make a tough decision.
As a freshman, Davis had helped recruit John Mackey, a tough running back from New York City, promising to be his roommate if he came to Syracuse. Coach Schwartzwalder also promised that Mackey could take over Davis’s No. 44 once Davis graduated.
"I don't want to be number 44," Mackey told him. "I don't want to play behind anyone."<3>
Mackey instead switched to tight end where he went on to an All-Pro and NFL Hall of Fame career.
That 1959 Syracuse team went unbeaten and claimed a national championship in the 1960 Cotton Bowl where Davis scored two touchdowns - including an 87-yard pass reception - in a 23-14 win over Texas to cap an 11-0 season.
Life magazine reported that Syracuse players accused the Longhorns of dirty play, especially against their three black players:
“Once when he was plowing through the line, said Negro fullback Art Baker, ‘one of them spit right in my face.’
“John Brown, a Negro lineman, played nose to nose against 235-pound Texas tackle Larry Stephens. To goad him off balance, Brown claimed, Stephens kept calling him ‘a big black dirty nigger.’ Finally, Brown warned him not to call him that again. When Stephens did, Brown swung.
“Afterward Stephens apologized to Brown. But Brown had already forgiven him. ‘That Texas boy was just excited,’ he said. ‘Let's forget it’.”<4>
Davis, who was voted most valuable player for the game, found that decades of racial discrimination in the American south carried well beyond the playing field.
Davis and his two black teammates were required to leave the segregated post-game banquet after Davis received his MVP award. When Davis’ white teammates learned of the arrangement, they vowed to leave the banquet, too, in a sign of team solidarity, but Syracuse officials nixed that plan.
Before his junior season Davis was named a preseason All-American by Playboy magazine, whose sports editor Anson Mount called Davis the greatest college running back in history. On the Orangemen’s first play from scrimmage that fall, Davis ran 80 yards for a score against Boston University. He finished the season as the nation’s third leading rusher with 877 yards and 7.8 yards a carry, repeating as an All-American. Davis also found time in his junior year to play basketball in nine games for the Orangemen, averaging 10.2 points and 9.6 rebounds a game.
Davis ran for 823 years in his final football season, scoring 94 points and breaking 10 of Brown’s school records while leading Syracuse to its second bowl win in three years.Davis’s impact on the game he loved was cemented in history in a three-day span in early December.
On Dec. 4, 1961, he became the first black player to be selected first in the National Football League draft at the Sheraton Hotel in Chicago. Ironically, Davis was selected by the Washington Redskins, which was still an all-white team, the last in the NFL.
Redskins owner George Marshall had been under pressure for years to integrate the team but, as the southernmost team in the NFL, enjoyed a strong southern base. But Interior Secretary Stewart Udall issued an ultimatum: Either sign a black player by the start of the 1962 season, or the Interior Department would revoke the Redskins’ 30-year lease on the then-new D.C. Stadium.
Although many football watchers expected Marshall to use the No. 1 pick to take one of the top white prospects, like Roman Gabriel, Lance Alworth or Merlin Olson, he opted for Davis.
here was a complication, though: the last two Heisman winners - Billy Cannon (1959) and Joe Bellino (1960) - had signed with the rival American Football League. Furthermore, Davis had vowed he would never play for Marshall and was giving the Buffalo Bills of the AFL, who had also drafted him, a serious look. Within a week, Davis was traded to the Cleveland Browns where he would join his football mentor Jim Brown in the backfield.
On Dec. 6, 1961, Davis was formally recognized as the country’s top college football player, accepting the Heisman Trophy at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City. Davis became the first black player to claim a Heisman in the 27-year history of the award. Davis edged out Ohio State’s Bob Ferguson by just 53 points in what is still the third-closest vote in Heisman history. His old elementary school pal, Minnesota quarterback Sandy Stephens, finished fourth in the voting.
After the trophy presentation, Davis had a brief meeting at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel with President John F. Kennedy, an ardent follower of Davis’ career. Later that day, Davis weaved his way through a celebratory crowd and extended a hand to Coach Schwartzwalder.
"Put 'er there, Coach," Davis said. "Shake the hand that shook hands with President Kennedy!"<5>
On Dec. 29, while in San Francisco preparing for the East-West Shrine game, David appeared at a press conference with his lawyer Anthony DeFilipo and Browns owner Art Modell to sign what was then the largest NFL contract for a rookie - $65,000 for three years plus a $15,000 signing bonus.
His final semester of college was a whirlwind of activity. He had returned to school, but his daily routine was constantly interrupted by phone calls - invitations to speak at banquets or receive awards. He was gone nearly every weekend, making appearances in high school gyms, auditoriums and corporate boardrooms. By April, he’d had enough. He got off the public merry-go-round and focused on his studies. In June, he led the Syracuse graduation march before turning his attention back to football.
He was still feeling worn down when he traveled to Buffalo in late June to prepare for the Coaches All-America Game. On July 8, he reported to the Browns’ training camp in Hiram, Ohio, and from there it was on to Evanston, Ill., to work with the College All-Stars for their game against the NFL’s Green Bay Packers on Aug. 3.
While in Buffalo, Davis started having trouble with nose bleeds, bleeding gums and infected wisdom teeth. By the time he got to Chicago, the problem was severe enough to send him to the hospital where the wisdom teeth were removed. He rejoined the team, but his dental issues kept him from eating well. There were no signs of trouble on the field, though, and he was the team’s leading rusher in a scrimmage against the Chicago Bears.
But, on the Saturday before the game, Davis woke to find that one side of his face was badly swollen. A trainer sent him to the hospital. The initial diagnosis was mumps or mononucleosis, but they soon learned it was more serious. The diagnosis was acute monocytic leukemia and treatment was begun immediately,
Browns owner Art Modell was given the grim diagnosis over the phone immediately, but Davis wasn’t told he had leukemia until October. Modell flew to Chicago, pulled Davis from the All-Star roster and flew him back to Cleveland, where he was checked into Marymount Hosital. Team physician Dr. Vic Ippolito ordered a new series of tests, hoping the Chicago doctors were wrong. But the leukemia diagnosis was confirmed and pathologists estimated Davis had six months to a year left to live.
Modell called for a private meeting with local reporters where he shared the dire news and asked that they not write about it, a request that was apparently honored.
Davis, meanwhile, knew he had some sort of blood illness, but said he never was in pain, nor did he feel sick. Chemotherapy put the disease in remission and Davis was feeling well when he was summoned to a meeting with hematologist Dr. Austin Weisberger, Ippolito and Modell on Oct. 4, where he was told he had leukemia.
Can it be cured? he asked. No, he was told, but with the disease in remission, you can play football if you want.
Modell shared the news with his coach, Paul Brown. Brown, who had looked forward to the day when Jim Brown and Ernie Davis could appear in the Browns’ backfield together, was skeptical. He found another hematologist who recommended that Brown not play Davis. The rift between Modell and Brown over whether to play Davis or not would fracture their relationship and lead to Brown’s dismissal after the 1962 season.
Modell, however, did not give up on Davis. He sought specialist from around the globe, including a few whose alternative treatments were compared to something out of a Boris Karloff movie. Davis, too, carried on - working out in a gym and playing basketball to keep in shape. Jim Brown helped him land a job with Pepsi Cola, but he never gave up hope of playing in the NFL.
His only public appearance with the Browns came on Aug. 18, 1962, when he was introduced to Cleveland fans before a preseason game.
"The PA announcer said, 'Here is another member of the Browns’ offensive team, No. 45, Ernie Davis,' " Modell recalled. "The place was bedlam.”
“He had on his skinny tie, tweed jacket, nice shirt,” recalled John Brown, a Syracuse teammate who was also a Cleveland player. “It was like there was a hush as he walked out to the middle of the field. You had something like 85,000 people go crazy when the spotlight hit him. I'm sure there were a lot of people that were around that told their kids."<6>
During the 1962 season, Davis ran non-contact drills with the team, helped develop game plans and spent most games on the Cleveland bench.
In mid-December, he accompanied his old college coach, Ben Schwartzwalder, on a recruiting trip to New Haven, Conn. The target was Floyd Little, a record-breaking high school running back. Davis told him of the great opportunities at Syracuse, home of the great Jim Brown. You might even get to wear No. 44, he hinted. In January, Davis made a follow-up call to Little. Have you decided where you’re going, Davis asked?
"You know I'm going to Syracuse," Little said. "My mom wants me to grow up just like you."<7>
Helen Gott wasn’t particularly fond of athletes. She was quiet and reserved, deeply religious and didn’t drink. Her dad was an Army colonel. Athletes, on the other hand, were loud and profane. That’s what she thought. Until she met Ernie Davis.
It was the spring of 1960. Davis was an All-American football player; Gott was a shy freshman at Syracuse. Their paths crossed at the Tippin’ Inn, a hangout near the Syracuse campus where black students congregated. Gott was there with a few fellow freshmen; Davis was among a gaggle of track and football players. They started talking.
"I didn't know that much about football, and I do remember telling him I didn't know he was a big star, and him laughing,” Gott later recalled.<8>
It was a casual meeting. Things picked up in the fall, after Helen was named “weekend queen,” an honor marked by an appearance at a Syracuse U. football game. Ernie noticed her and soon they were dating.
They went for rides in his Edsel, walks in Thornden Park, dinners at the Tippin’ Inn or dances where up to 80 black students would toss in $5 apiece to rent a room at a restaurant and hire a band so they could dance to their heart’s content. Felix Cavaliere, a Syracuse student who would later form the rock group, the Young Rascals, was an early attraction.
Helen had met his parents in Elmira; he had met her parents in East Orange, N.J. They were a serious couple and, though not formally engaged, were discussing marriage as Ernie battled his illness.
At the time of his chicken livers dinner, the leukemia was back.
Davis tried to be discreet in his battle, but friends noticed when he stuffed cotton up his nose to curtail the nosebleeds. They noticed as his trips to the hospital for treatment were more frequent. On May 16, he told Art Modell he was entering the hospital. Davis routinely kept Modell updated on his medical care since the Browns were footing the bill. But he usually gave Modell a telephone call; this time he arrived at Modell’s office in person.
"You don't have to come down to tell me that," said Modell. "Call me when you get out. I want you to get busy and start lifting weights." The two men chatted briefly, shook hands, and Davis left.<9>
Davis checked into Lakeside Hospital in Cleveland. On the evening of May 17, he lapsed into a coma. At 2 a.m. he coughed once and died.
That morning, Gott was in her Sigma Delta Tau sorority house when the university chaplain approached her with the news. Suddenly, she wanted to be alone.
"I went outside and sat under a tree. At that time, even with the faith that I had in God, it seemed unfair. It seemed like he had done all the right things. He had led a good life. He had overcome obstacles. He had excelled. He would be just a great role model. Not only for black youths, but for everybody. This was a truly good person. If he didn't ask the question—'Why me?'—I think I did. You know, "Why him? Why Ernie?”<10>
Although Davis was just 23 when he died, his legacy runs deep. At the time of his death he was eulogized in both houses of the U.S. Congress. His wake in Elmira drew lasted more than 12 hours and drew more than 10,000 mourners who waited in lines two blocks long at the Neighborhood House, a recreation center Davis had spent many hours in as a kid. A message from President Kennedy was read at his funeral, which was attended by nearly every member of the Cleveland Browns. Davis was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira on May 22.
He was posthumously inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1979. His college coach, Ben Schwartzwalder, said, “I never met another human being as good as Ernie.”
His old high school, Elmira Free Academy, was reborn as Ernie Davis Middle School. A city park across the street was named for him and in 1988 a life-sized bronze statue of Davis was dedicated in front of the school. For years after, Davis’ old high school football coach, Marty Harrigan, placed a bouquet of flowers at the foot of the statue on the anniversary of Davis’s death.
Another statue of Davis stands on the campus of Syracuse University, near the spot where pre-game football rallies are held. A dormitory for the school also bears his name. In 2008, a fictionalized version of his life was presented in a film, The Express. The movie, which fared poorly with critics and at the box office, was based on a book, Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express by Robert C. Gallagher.
Davis was one of 19 players to wear No. 44 at Syracuse. Three of those players were All-Americans: Jim Brown (who recruited Ernie Davis), Ernie Davis (who recruited Floyd Little) and Little. In 2005, Syracuse officially retired the number. So iconic was the number in Syracuse U. lore that the United States Postal Service granted the school permission to use the number in its own zip code, 13244.
Shortly after Davis’s death, the Browns retired Davis’s No. 45 despite the fact that had never played a down in the NFL.
It took Helen Gott a while to get over the loss of Davis. On one of their trips to her parents’ home, Davis brought a gift, a 45rpm record of Our Day Will Come by Ruby & the Romantics. The couple would go down to the basement and dance while they played the record over and over. For years after his death, she could not bear to hear the song. But she finished her studies at Syracuse and Columbia, moved to Kansas City, married a minister and had a nearly half-century career as Helen Gray, a religion writer and editor at Kansas City newspapers.
Davis’s football teammates continued to sing his praises, some more than 50 years after his death. John Mackey credited Davis for encouraging him to woo the woman he would eventually marry, even giving him the keys to his beloved Edsel on occasion.
John Brown, his teammate at Syracuse went on to have a successful career with the Browns and, later, in banking. Brown, who shared an apartment with Davis in Cleveland, named a son after his Heisman-winning teammate. Brown acknowledged that Art Modell and the Browns were gracious in their treatment of Davis but wishes they would have done one more thing:
"I wanted him, hoped for him, to be able to run one doggone kickoff back. I think that would have satisfied him."<11>
￼<1> “A Life Cut Short,” William Nack, Sports Illustrated, Sept. 4, 1989.<2> “Ernie Davis’ legacy lives on long after his death,” Steve Wyche, NFL.com, Oct. 8, 2008.<3> “A Life Cut Short,” William Nack, Sports Illustrated, Sept. 4, 1989.<4> Life, Jan. 11, 1960<5> “A Life Cut Short,” William Nack, Sports Illustrated, Sept. 4, 1989.<6> “Ernie Davis’ legacy lives on long after his death,” Steve Wyche, NFL.com, Oct. 8, 2008.<7> “A Life Cut Short,” William Nack, Sports Illustrated, Sept. 4, 1989.<8> “From the woman who loved him: The real greatness of Ernie Davis transcended football,” Sean Kirst, Syracuse Post Standard, Sept. 12, 2008.<9> “A Life Cut Short,” William Nack, Sports Illustrated, Sept. 4, 1989.<10> Ibid.<11> “Ernie Davis’ legacy lives on long after his death,” Steve Wyche, NFL.com, Oct. 8, 2008.
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Ernie Davis, footballBorn: December 14, 1939Died: May 18, 1963 (age 23)
Here's a video tribute to Davis produced by Syracuse University:
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